Heroes Of Running 2010: The Winners

Heroes Of Running 2010: The Winners

WHO IS YOUR RUNNING HERO? Is it the coach who introduced you to the sport that's now your passion? Or the friend who's stuck with you through stitches and cramp, rainy days, and heat waves? Or the frontrunner who sets a record whenever he toes the line? For those who've inspired, encouraged or wowed you, the term "hero" is entirely justified.

Over the past year, six individuals have become heroes to us, by accomplishing extraordinary feats or using running to improve the lives of others. There's the former army officer who overcame horrific injuries to complete the London Marathon, the 16-year-old British running sensation and the famous funnyman who ran 43 marathons in 51 days. They are the winners of our 2010 Heroes of Running Awards, sponsored by Aviva. They'll inspire, encourage and wow you, too.


Aviva is proud to be working again with Runner’s World and sponsoring the Heroes of Running Awards. The entries this year were outstanding, with so many truly inspirational stories showing what a great running nation the UK is.

Win £10,000 for your school and an elite athlete PE lesson with Aviva
Aviva have launched the Elevating Athletics fund to provide a teacher in every school in the UK – that’s over 30,000 schools - with the opportunity to attend a free athletics coaching workshop. To celebrate this we’re also offering you the chance to nominate your local school to win a £10,000 sports grant for a facility makeover, plus ten further schools will win a day with an elite athlete taking PE lessons. To enter the Aviva Elevating Athletics fund competition, visit aviva.co.uk/athletics and tell us why your school deserves to win a £10K PE makeover.

The Rising Star: Emelia Gorecka

The Rising Star: Emelia Gorecka

She's won everything from the English National Cross Country Championships to the ISF World School Games. But Emelia Gorecka, who turned 16 in January, is definitely not one to rest on her laurels.

This April, Gorecka was the youngest runner in the junior women's race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Undaunted by her older, more-experienced competitors, Goreka finished the 6K in 23rd place, with a time of 20:25. Just eight seconds behind fastest Brit Kate Avery, Gorecka helped the GB team to fifth place. Not bad for someone who is doing her GCSEs this year.

"I'm lucky to have found a good balance between studies and running," she says. "I take every season as it comes and keep progressing by small amounts. I'm really happy with the way my season's been developing. The highlight was the World Champs. I can't wait to be up there again."

Gorecka has been running since primary school. She performed so well in the school cross-country event that her teachers advised her to try track work. She excelled at both the 800m and 1500m. But it wasn't until 2007, aged 13, that Gorecka found her niche: when she returned to cross-country.

Her progression was stellar. In 2007, she came either first or second in all of her five cross-country events; by 2008, she was winning every time, recording 15 consecutive victories. At the same time, Gorecka began experimenting with longer track work, cutting her 3,000m PB from 9:58.98 to 9:22.8 in just a year.

She credits her success to the support of coach Mick Woods and her fellow runners at Aldershot, Farnham and District AC. She also ranks her club mates amongst her closest friends. "They help me stay calm and focused," she says. "Running is like my relaxation time; I go out at least three times a week but there's no additional pressure on me. I don't get fazed by the competition - I thrive on it."

Gorecka has the perfect mix of natural ability and natural optimism. Asked about the much-criticised state of British school sports, she is typically upbeat: "You just need to look at the under-13s competitions to see how many children there are who are really enthusiastic about running. The problem is that they tend to drop out of sport during their teenage years. We just need to get them to stay on - and the situation really looks good." 

The Master: Geoff Oliver

The Master: Geoff Oliver

Geoff Oliver broke his first world record aged 65 - which is proof that you're never too old to excel. Now 76, the retired teacher - and grandfather of seven - holds 11 world bests, in everything from 30 miles to 100K. He set an incredible four national and two world records at a single event last year: the Self-Transcendence 24 Hour Race at Tooting Bec Athletics Track.

"Some runners get tangled up in PBs - I just run as I feel and the rest takes care of itself," he says. This tactic helped Oliver run a world-beating 111 miles in 24 hours, as well as setting a new best time of 20:43:49 for the 100-mile distance. He came 10th overall, beating runners a third of his age.

It's all the more remarkable because Oliver, from Billesdon in Leicestershire, only started to run competitively in his fifties. "I had run a bit when I was studying, and then in my twenties I found myself teaching recruits in the Army," he says. "I used to ferry them to races, and decided to join in, running up and down fells in my army boots."

It was a no-nonsense introduction to the world of endurance running. Does Oliver think that modern runners would benefit from a similar gruelling experience? "Modern life is certainly a bit wimpish," he says. "That may be why standards seem to be slipping. When I ran 6:32:27 at this year's Barry 40-mile Track Race I broke a record - but unfortunately it was my own record from the previous year."

As President of Hinckley Running Club and the 100K Association, Oliver is doing what he can to encourage a sense of fighting spirit in the upcoming generation of long-distance runners. "Most of the new runners seem to prefer distances under 10 miles, which is an shame because ultra-running teaches you the perfect mixture of physical and psychological control," he says.

Oliver cites Don Ritchie as his personal inspiration: the 52-year-old ultra runner has held the world records for 100K and 100 miles since the 1970s. As for himself, he accepts that he is slowing down in his late seventies, but is sure he will never stop running: "There's just something euphoric about it," he says.

The Mentors: jogscotland

The Mentors: jogscotland

It's a bitingly cold and snowy night in January, but some hardy souls are gathering for a meeting about running in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire. Tempting 20 people out on a night like this would be impressive. So to have 276 people turning up is phenomenal. It's just one example of the success that jogscotland has had in bringing new people into running north of the border.

Set up in 2002 by Scottish Athletics, the network has had over 20,000 people pass through its programmes. The concept is simple: jogscotland trains "jog leaders" and provides support, advice and promotion for jogging groups across the country in communities and at work.

Central to its growth is its manager Alistair Currie, 44, who joined in 2003. A former teenage athletics star, Currie still holds the Scottish schools under-17s 1500m record and the Scottish native 3000m indoor record. He says the key to jogscotland's success lies in its inclusive approach. "It's 30-second walk/jog in week one. But we've had people go on to do 10Ks, half- and even full marathons."

jogscotland now has over 460 groups across Scotland. Add to this the success of junior jogscotland, which has over 1,200 primary school and youth groups. It has also established a network of male jogging groups, including one in the East End of Glasgow, where Currie found one man's story especially inspiring. "There was one guy who had alcohol problems and wasn't allowed to see his children. But through his involvement he's been able to get fitter and also tackle his alcohol issues.

"The last time I met him he was allowed to see his children again and the positive influence that has had on them was amazing. They had joined their local athletic club, so it wasn't only his life that had been transformed but also those of his children. Those sort of interventions really excite me. Everyone knows running keeps you fit and healthy, but a lot of the benefits we see are more about mental well-being. Running is such a powerful force and the potential is huge."

The Ambassador: Eddie Izzard

The Ambassador: Eddie Izzard

A year after Eddie Izzard spent six weeks on the run for Sport Relief, even dedicated runners still talk about the "Eddie Iz Running" challenge with awe. For any runner to tackle 43 marathons in 51 days is staggering. To do it as a 47-year-old running virgin, famous for wearing high heels? It must be the ultimate triumph

of comedian over common sense. "I'm an obsessive character. This is the hardest thing I've ever done," Izzard admits. "I might as well have eaten a car."

Izzard had spent 10 years idly fantasising about what it would be like to run the length and breath of Great Britain. Then Sport Relief came calling and one "snap decision" later, he prepared to live out the fantasy. "I'm still a big kid, determined to do these adventures," he says.

On July 29 last year, Izzard set off from his London home. It was the first of 1,000 miles that the cross-dressing comedian would run around England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The charity got a hugely-popular successor to David Walliams after his 2006 English Channel swim. Izzard got something more personal: the chance to revisit his childhood homes, including the house where his mother died when he was just six years old. "I keep going back," he said. "Probably trying to recapture the time before my mum died. [I have] this drive, because of something that disappeared."

Fuelled by powerful memories, and despite his dedication, Izzard found it tough. He initially planned to run 30 miles a day but had to settle for a "mere" 27.  He says he was never tempted to give in, though, even as his "blisters grew blisters" and his toenails fell off. When he collapsed towards the end of day ten, Izzard got right back up and started running again. "Let me shake your hand - I think there's summat wrong wi' you," said one of his many well-wishers.

Izzard famously did all this on just five weeks of training, although his muscles grew faster and stronger as the challenge wore on. His first 27 miles took him 10 hours, but by the end of week six he was able to go the distance in less than five.

As well as raising over £200,000 for Sport Relief, in the course of those six weeks, Izzard had challenged the assumptions of runners and laypeople alike. He showed that running is a sport that really is open to anyone, and that it goes beyond fatuous comparisons to a certain well-known film character: "Forrest Gump didn't know why he was running - I do," says Izzard.

The Survivor: Kirste Snellgrove

The Survivor: Kirste Snellgrove

On being told that she had breast cancer, Kirste Snellgrove's first question was unusual: would she still be able to run? Defying her doctor's orders, Snellgrove, 41, ran after her mastectomy and she ran during her courses of radio- and chemotherapy.

Snellgrove had only started running in 2001, as a way of losing a few pounds. "I caught sight of my backside in a shop's changing room mirror," she jokes. "But I got the running bug."

She did her first marathon at London the year after. Yet as her illness took hold, running began to take on a new significance. "It became more important than ever," Snellgrove says. "It was a way for me to step away from my own problems and leave everything behind for a while.

"I've still got health issues - the doctors found cancer in my lung and it's beginning to look like I can't get rid of that. But I always look on the positive side of things and I'm generally a very happy bunny."

Snellgrove, who lives in Benfleet in Essex, has made as few concessions as possible to her illness. She still works as a police training sergeant at Essex Police College and has no intention of stepping down. Fresh from completing her ninth London Marathon this year - her 19th marathon so far - she has also tried not to let the illness affect her running goals.  "I've had to recognise that I'm a bit of a plodder now," she laughs. "I get tired quite quickly these days, so I perhaps don't get to do as much training as I would like. But I do at least one long run a week and still try to pack in the shorter sessions, too."

As in previous years, Snellgrove will run the 2010 London Marathon as a team, alongside friends Anna Spencer and Rachel O'Conner, and her husband, John Bowman. Now in training for her fourth triathlon (the London Tri in August) Snellgrove is due to start a new round of chemotherapy a few weeks before the event.

"It'll be a challenge," she admits. "But I did the Marathon last year four weeks after chemo. "I was never a quick runner anyway, so it's never been about times. I don't race so much as struggle through, determined to get to the end.

"But I'm addicted to that feeling of crossing the line and going to bed satisfied with your day. I'll never, ever stop."

The Inspiration: Major Phil Packer

The Inspiration: Major Phil Packer

Thirteen days afterthe London Marathon 2009, the crowds were still cheering as Major Phil Packer crossed the finish line. This was just a year after he had been told he would never walk again.

Packer, a commanding officer of the Royal Military Police, had been driving on the army base in Basra in February 2008, when a mortar alarm sounded. The major leapt out of his 4x4 vehicle to take cover. In the chaos, the vehicle rolled over him, bruising his heart, breaking his ribs and injuring the base of his spine. He faced a gruelling year of rehabilitation.

At the army's treatment centre at Headley Court in Surrey, soldiers are encouraged to rest completely between bouts of rehab. But Packer refused to sit quietly. Instead, he set himself the target of raising a million pounds for the charity Help for Heroes, through several high-profile challenges - one of which was the London Marathon. It was a way to fill what the 38-year-old called the "huge void" in his life.

His defiance and determination grabbed the attention of the world's media - and the respect of Runner's World readers - who voted overwhelmingly for Packer as their Jane Tomlinson Inspiration Award winner of 2010.

"I'm delighted - and quite shocked - to have received this recognition from the running community," says Packer. "I had initially planned to do the race in a wheelchair, so I also have to be very grateful that the London Marathon organisers took this chance on me as my mobility improved."

Just a month after Packer started using crutches, he lined up with the rest of the crowd, on April 26. He walked exactly two miles a day - the maximum distance his doctors would allow. His tactic was to walk as quickly as possible for one mile in the early morning, so he could rest and recover during the hottest part of the day, before doing the final mile in the evening. He admits that he found it tough going: "It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. My shoulders, arms and lower back hurt because of my crutches and the fact I wasn't used to standing up so much."

Packer relied on daily stretches and physiotherapy four nights a week. Under the full glare of the media spotlight, he was also acutely aware that the public were watching and willing him on. He admits that this newfound fame was "initially very difficult. It was strange to get so much attention and exposure".

Yet having raised £1.6m for Help for Heroes, Packer adopted a quotation from George Eliot as his raison d'être: "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for others?" This was why Packer is tackling the London Marathon again this year, aiming to do the 26.2 miles in exactly 26 hours, to raise funds for 26 different charities including the NSPCC and Great Ormond Street Hospital. Packer will walk every mile alongside a representative from one of his charities.

The race also helped to publicise Packer's British Inspiration Trust, a new charitable foundation to help young people suffering from disability. Why the focus on youth?  "I was 36 when I was injured - if I'd been 16 I think I would have found it very much more difficult to cope, " Packer says. "There's the challenge of dealing with a disability itself, but at that age you have additional factors to consider: benefits, support, accommodation, further education and relationships.

"I benefited from having a strong infrastructure of support around me, from my family to my employer. Now I want to provide that for others."


For more information on Major Packer's rehabilitation, race efforts and fundraising, visit: www.philpacker.com.